Joining our discussion: Dan Stevens, a director at Darling Department, one of London’s foremost music PR/management/consultancy companies; Parv Thind, sound designer at Wave recording studios, and Peter Raeburn, founder and creative director of music production company Soundtree.
Creative Review: How and why did all this folky, acoustic, twee music become so dominant in advertising – was it the José González track on Sony Balls that began this trend?
Dan Stevens: Ah, yes … sanitised American nowhere towns and pretty young people wearing plaid. There’s a lot of it around at the moment. These ads are totally non-threatening and cool whilst appealing to a broad range of people…. But I’m bored of it now – it’s a visual and musical cliché. It seems to have taken over from vaguely harmless electronica as the ‘in’ sound of advertising….
Peter Raeburn: Acoustic folk has always had its power and always will. It was Sony Bravia’s Balls spot which optimised and gave rise to the new wave of using pure, honest unfussy music which, actually, clients are now self-conscious about. Our ears get tired and need change, but are always comforted by hearing old friends you can trust.
Parv Thind: Yes, it does seem like the Balls ad was the first to have that folky, acoustic sound. Actually, the ad featured a combination of image and sound that together blows you away because you’d never seen or heard an advert like it. It’s really powerful and that definitely has a knock-on effect. People saw that ad and thought, ‘what a great formula’ and when people see a formula that is clearly working it’s easy for them to say ‘let’s do something like that’. That’s the power of advertising! It has the power to start trends (and sell records). Before Balls, there was a trend for finding quirky old tracks from the 1930s that no one had ever heard of. The music that was on Playstation Mountain is a great example. There was a Wrangler ad with Follow The Yellow Brick Road on there. It’s a trend that’s still ongoing.
CR: What other strong musical trends have there been in advertising recently and can those trends be traced back to a particular commercial?
PR: Guinness Surfer gave energy to the use of bass, the sub-sonic and the visceral: a trend in how little you need to do so much.
PT: That’s right, after Guinness Surfer came out, everyone was looking at beefy electronic music. ‘Oh, they used Leftfield, let’s get Chemical Brothers….’ After Audi Bull came out, everyone wanted rumbling basslines on their ads. Remember that Nike ad from years ago where there’s a load of Brazilian footballers showing off their skills in an airport? That ad started a trend of Brazilian music being used on sports ads…. More recently Clarks did an ad with Ace of Spades and Sony Bravia used Iron Maiden: these work because they’re so different to other ads, when they’re in isolation. The same thing happened after Street Music came out [for 1Xtra]: people were keen to make their ads really ‘street’. So people do tend to jump on things in that way. It’s a natural tendency and there’s not much we can do about it. Someone releases a hit record and it’s got a great sound, other people will replicate it. That’s how it works in music, fashion etc.
CR: Do labels actively contact you to offer tracks?
DS: Record labels do seek to get their wares heard by the people that choose music for advertising, although I would say that these days it’s happening even earlier down the food chain than ever before. You used to wait until the band was signed and had a publishing deal but now there are independent music sync companies that look to work with bands even before they’ve signed a deal with a label. These companies have close relationships with ad agencies and music consultants. So they might come to us with a brief from an ad agency and ask us if we had any ideas. My company might be working with unsigned acts and talk to them and work with agencies direct…. If an act hasn’t signed with a record company, any money to be made can be split without a cut going to the label.
Music on an advert can, of course be a big earner. A label can (and often does) practically hold ad agencies to ransom if they want to license the use of a particular track for an advert. However, for an artist, it’s the exposure that having a track on an ad can bring that’s the real attraction. When The Gossip’s track Standing In The Way Of Control appeared on those Skins promo films on Channel 4, it undoubtedly made the record a hit and exposed the band to a much bigger audience. That’s also what happened with Sony’s Balls ad – no one had really heard of José González before that ad so it definitely brought him to mainstream attention.
CR: Are creatives looking to stand out with their choice of soundtrack or follow a trend?
PT: It totally depends. You’ve got to remember that target audience is a crucial factor in track selection. Friendly folky stuff will appeal to mums at home so is probably a good choice for advertising washing powder. Simple as that. There’s always going to be a proportion of ads that pick up on a winning formula and use it. And I don’t think the clients are really bothered about whether it sounds like someone else’s ad. The bottom line for them is that they want to sell their product. When it comes to things like washing powder and everyday products, the brands don’t really care about making cool ads that break new ground. The great thing about brands like Sony Bravia is that the advertising has made it cool – by being different. Honda too has become cool because of their advertising. Notably those two brands have had great adverts over the last few years but each one is totally different stylistically – both visually and music-wise. They’re looking to create pieces of entertainment that look and sound like the next big thing. Honda’s Impossible Dream ad – that is a great piece of music. That Andy Williams track absolutely nails that film. It works lyrically with what Honda wants to say, and the sound is completely different to what was on other ads at the time.
PR: Standout is obviously something that is sought after and called for, yet needs to be balanced with longevity, standing the test of time, repeat viewing. The internet allows and forces things to last forever instantly. Good ideas and good relationships between music and picture will remain so throwaway fads die quickly in an unnecessarily disposable world. Sometimes things stand out simply because they’re the right choice.
CR: And what makes something the right choice?
PR: We shouldn’t quite be able to imagine anything else on there. The right music works on lots of levels. When all those levels come together, we get into the realm of the undeniable. When we get into the realm of the undeniable, it’s right.
CR: So will twee music disappear or at least diminish a bit in our advertising?
PT: It’s on the way out. I don’t know what’s next, but it’s definitely died a death. The general vibe from people coming in working on stuff right now is that they’re not interested in that kind of music. There are other avenues to explore and creative types are definitely aware that to make their advert stand out, they need to look to be original and make a fresh statement. So to make an ad with a similar impact to Balls, you have to come up with your own formula. We’ll probably see folk music used less in ads from now on but then in a few years time, someone will find a beautiful piece of music that is perfect for a particular film, and you’ll have forgotten that that kind of music had been used before – it will sound fresh again.
CR: What’s the next big thing – have you heard any music that could be the next big sound to hit ads?
DS: Dubstep / grime? Some of the more esoteric stuff from these genres must work really well in an advert! Scratchy indie bollocks never really caught on (I’m talking about The Libertines onwards) and Britpop hasn’t either – although there was that Carling ad which featured a track by Hard-Fi…. Basically, in the music scene at the moment, there isn’t an overriding theme – it’s really fragmented. So really advertising should reflect that and be looking for music beyond the folky.
What that kind of music has done is talk to both the housewives and mothers as well as the young trendy folk that would be into this new kind of folk music. The problem right now is that if you’re trying to talk to a hipper audience, they’ve probably had enough of that sound and so you have to be more challenging. So the dubstep ad love-in is yet to happen!
Noticeably, there hasn’t been an injection of soul in advertising like there was when Levi’s used Ben E King’s Stand By Me and other Motown classics years ago. Those tracks were so popular that Levi’s was able to re-release the records (with its logo on the sleeves). That kind of soul music has similar appeal to the folky stuff – it’s cool, safe, non-threatening and downright catchy. So perhaps people in advertising feel that their peers will look down on them if they take that tack again – but actually the public would probably love it.
PT: It’s the impact of something new and unexpected that has the power to start a whole new trend….